Logging tycoon Try Pheap’s rapidly expanding land empire, criticised by rights groups for displacing families and encroaching on protected forest areas, has grown to almost 70,000 hectares in size and is helping to facilitate a cross-border illegal logging operation, a report released today alleges.
The Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF), a local NGO, claims in the report that through as many as 15 companies operating under his name or that of his wife, Mao Mom, Pheap is in possession of almost seven times the amount of economic land concessions (ELCs) allowed by law – an allegation a representative of the tycoon denied yesterday.
“The reason to focus only on Try Pheap’s companies,” the report states, “is to urge the government to take action and show the truth behind why our forests are disappearing.”
The report – one of a number this year focusing on Pheap’s activities – also alleges that as well as being concessionaire to vast areas of land, Pheap also has exclusive rights to collect and buy luxury timber, mainly rosewood, from all government-granted land concessions in 15 provinces.
Areas mentioned include Ream National Park in Preah Sihanouk province, Preah Vihear province’s Boeung Pe Wildlife Sanctuary and Virachey National Park in northeastern Cambodia.
Mining concessions are also listed as having been granted in Stung Treng province.
CHRTF’s report adds that Pheap’s companies – which include his MDS Import Export firm – also clear timber from concession areas in Cambodia’s other nine provinces.
According to the report, at least 1,445 families have been evicted from their homes during Pheap’s acquisition of about 68,088 hectares since 2010.
If true, this violates Article 59 of the Land Law, which states that individuals or legal entities controlled by the same person cannot hold more than 10,000 hectares of ELCs, even if it is spread over multiple concessions. CHRTF said it compiled information against Pheap’s companies using a team of investigators across the country and tracked company officials crossing into Vietnam to sell the timber.
Included in the 52-page report are photos of company vehicles transporting rosewood, and piles of timber stationed at company offices and Pheap’s home in Kandal province.
CHRTF says it has documents from the environment and commerce ministries that detail the concessions.
The report claims Pheap is closely connected with officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, the military, forestry officials and other concessionaires, such as Choeung Sopheap, who owns the Pheapimex company.
Sopheap is married to ruling Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin, whose company Shukaku is licensed to develop the capital’s Boeung Kak area.
CHRTF director Ouch Leng, who compiled the report, said Pheap’s companies have been granted land concessions to develop rubber and pepper plantations, but has effectively seized people’s land in order to export timber to Vietnam.
“The main business and politics of tycoon Try Pheap is to operate a timber business under the cloak of ELCs and … transport wood openly from Cambodia to Vietnam,” he said. Transport points included Mondulkiri province, Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadav district and Sihanoukville port.
“The company has fed and sponsored armed forces and civil servants in the concession area by helping build offices, but it does not help improve people’s lives,” Leng said.
Multiple attempts at reaching Pheap were not successful yesterday, but a company representative in Preah Vihear province denied allegations of illegal activity.
“Our company does not log illegally,” he said, adding that Pheap’s companies had rights to buy timber in only eight provinces. “We buy wood that has been seized by the authorities,” said the employee, who did not want to be named. “The money goes to the state. We do not export it. We process it in Phnom Penh as furniture.”
He said allegations made about the companies’ practices were spurious, and villagers were given adequate compensation when they were relocated.
Thorn Sarath, director of the administration department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said he was not aware of the way the 15 companies in question were structured and would have to look into the matter further.
“Previously, companies have followed the [Land Law] on this [a restriction of 10,000 hectares per person],” he said. “But [concessionaires] are always having problems with people, so we need to check more because previous impact studies have been too basic.”
Other government officials could not be reached.
The report by CHRTF, an NGO set up in the 1990s by the International Human Rights Law Group and managed locally since 1997, is the latest to call into question concessions and licences granted to the logging tycoon.
Last month, NGO National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization (NRWPO) said an investigation it had carried out had discovered illegal logging in every protected forest in the country and that licences granted to Pheap, allowing him to collect and buy timber from ELCs, will leave the areas ecologically impoverished.
In February, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries granted Pheap an exclusive licence to collect and buy timber from economic land concessions in Ratanakkiri.
In June, the Post reported that Pheap’s MDS Import Export company had been granted a licence to collect and process yellow vine around the Stung Atay hydropower dam in the Cardamom Mountains.
And in a report released in August, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it had evidence of rampant illegal logging in Preah Vihear being carried out under orders from Pheap.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said via email yesterday that big land concessions in Cambodia have inevitably resulted in “rights abuses and resource looting going hand in hand”.
“Ripping apart local communities to support the greed of a few is only possible where those violating rights know that they have total impunity to do so – which is far too often the common state of affairs in Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”